Martin Luther King Jr. Day provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution.
Initially, he was reluctant to assume leadership beyond his local community, concerned as well as insightful in seeing that might ultimately cost his life. He was perceptive but took on the job nonetheless, and persevered continuously until his assassination in the spring of 1968.
King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd politician.
In reflecting on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a very human tendency to idealize and therefore ultimately distort history.
That is unfortunate for two reasons.
First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit can easily diminish the person described. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased.
Second, oversimplifying past times limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future.
Martin Luther King preached unity but during his life did not achieve that goal. As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified civil rights effort became fractured.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, was, to some extent, overshadowed by other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe faction, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.
The fact that Dr. King endures from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his message and also efforts. The ecumenical March on Washington in 1963 continues to be visibly remembered because of the enormous scale of the pilgrimage, and also the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.
As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Republican U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate minority leader, played a crucial role in passage.
Less visible today, but also important, is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey proposed a civil rights plank for the party platform. Many advised against this; he nonetheless persevered successfully.
In the resulting emotional political maelstrom, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led Southern delegates out of the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, President Truman was re-elected.
Martin Luther King was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were congruent with our most fundamental national principles.
Note to readers – Arthur I. Cyr is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.